Can I interest you in everything, all of the time? This is the question put to us by Bo Burnham’s carnival ringmaster of all things online in ‘Welcome to the Internet’, a song from his Covid-induced comedy special come mental unravelling Inside . The song captures the imprisonment of the age, our shared, crooked addictions to the ever-flowing fountain of information that’s rarely more than a few metres from our fingertips. “Here’s a tip for straining pasta; here’s a nine year-old who died,” he grins, every bit as manic and entrancing as the technology he portrays. We all scroll idly past such travesties and worse daily on our phones, laptops and tablets. And of course it has an effect.
It’s hardly a secret that doomscrolling is bad for you. Or that too much time online is. Knowing these things does not make separation any easier. We are hooked. According to a journal published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, doomscrolling “appears as a vicious cycle in which users find themselves stuck in a pattern of seeking negative information no matter how bad the news is” . And the news is bad. Take your pick from the growing rolodex of global travesties. The war in Ukraine. The impending one in Taiwan. A food crisis in Yemen. Ongoing climate struggles. The world’s greatest living footballer shilling out for oil money from a nation with a less-than-stellar human rights record . Name your crisis, the news will find it for you; it is not low on stock.
The bad news
A 2020 Pew Research Center survey of more than 12,000 U.S. adults found that 66% felt worn out by the news. The same study shows that, “news fatigue is more widespread among the least engaged political news consumers. Nearly three-quarters of those who follow political and election news “not too” or “not at all closely” feel exhausted by the news (73%), higher than the share among those who follow political news “somewhat” (66%) or “very” closely (56%)” .In other words, political disengagement is not the answer to your prayers. Think of the news like Liam Neeson’s avenging father in Taken. It has a very particular set of skills. It will look for you. It will find you. And, to somewhat edit the final line, it will hit you with a debilitating fatigue that stalks you in your work and social life.
Unsurprisingly, this problem is more pronounced amongst the young. An American Press Institute survey found that more than 90% of Gen Z and Millennials report spending at least two hours a day online. That includes 56% who are online for more than 5 hours a day and 24% for more than 9 . The World Health Organization recommends the public “[tries] to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed” . The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, meanwhile, coined a title for those who struggle with excess news consumption: the infodemically vulnerable .
The pandemic of course played a large role in our collective news fatigue. The Economist called Covid the most dominant news story since the Second World War . I don’t think anyone with even a vague memory of the time would find that surprising. As early as April 2020, the World Health Organization was using the term “infodemic” to describe the abundance of pandemic coverage . For many, disengagement became a vital tool of survival. Walking a tightrope of well-being that a single further graph of infections vs hospitalisations threatened to tip off balance.
That said, Covid only served to exacerbate trends that had begun with social media’s growing prevalence and an age of polarisation best exemplified by the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. The online world moved from a social space to a partisan one. It was important to have a tribe. If you didn’t choose one, one would be ascribed to you, likely unfavourably.
This no doubt contributed to an increased sense of digital fatigue as no longer were people simply consumers of news, they were engagers with it. You did not read an article, you reacted to it. Like, comment, retweet, post. It requires mental energy to not simply stay engaged but to embody engagement, building a mini-brand around your beliefs, demonstrable through the content you chose to respond to and pass on to other like-minded consumers. Social media ceased to be that Edenic place where you would blissfully log on to see what your friends were up to. Instead, it became an algorithmically dictated carousel of partisan avatars looking to prove their moral and intellectual credentials, often at the expense of an equally engaged opposing force.
As noted in the Athens Journal of Mass Media and Communications, “research has confirmed the mental health impact of news consumption. One study found heightened anxiety, even sadness, in people who watched negative news-related material, such as bulletins, after only minutes” . For citizens who want to remain engaged, then, there exists a quandary: do you sacrifice your own well-being out of a sense of civic duty, or do you cut down on your consumption, willfully opting for the bliss of ignorance?
Of course, the choice is not actually so binary. Like most things, it’s about balance. If you sense that you are feeling overwhelmed by the news – especially if you are conscious that you spend more time following it than it’s suggested you should – then take a step back. A recent study by Texas Tech University among people with problematic or high levels of news viewing found that nearly 74% experienced stress or anxiety “quite a bit” or “very much”, while sixty-one percent reported feeling physically ill “quite a bit” or “very much” . If you recognise yourself in those brackets, step back.
Targeted screen time
Time notes that, “Excessive screen time has been shown to have negative effects on children and adolescents. It’s been linked to psychological problems, such as higher rates of depression and anxiety, as well as health issues like poor sleep and higher rates of obesity” . The effects on adults are less well-documented, but are thought to be only mildly less potent. But as assistant adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA, Yalda T. Uhls, says, how much time you’re spending on your phone is far less pertinent as the content you’re consuming. To avoid news fatigue, you don’t need to throw your phone in the ocean and set up camp in Timbuktu. You can still use your phone. Just be sure to pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.
Cutting back on social media seems the best way to help yourself. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology assessing the effects of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat on the mental health of 143 college students found that if young people showed depressive symptoms at the start of the study, then reduced their social-media use to just 10 minutes per day on each platform—a total of 30 minutes on social media per day—for three weeks, their symptoms of depression and loneliness decreased .
Melissa Hunt, associate director of clinical training in the department of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the above study, notes that, “It’s not that social media is in and of itself inherently problematic. It’s that using too much of it, or using it in the wrong way, is very problematic. My advice is if you’re going to use social media, follow friends for about one hour a day” . A Canadian study during the pandemic found that the best way to boost mental and general health was to combine a reduction in screen time with increased outdoor exercise .
Essentially, then, the solution is as simple as it is difficult: spend less time engaging with content that drains you. The obvious problem with that advice is that we are rarely engaging with such content blindly. Awareness that we are overdoing it does not preclude us from clicking on that next enticingly provocative link.
If you’re really struggling, going cold turkey might be the solution. Set limits on your phone so that there is at least some kind of barrier in place. Tell a friend or partner that you’re looking to disengage. Vocalising your intentions will likely help. If not, having someone willing to check in on you or hold you accountable is useful motivation.
And for those who don’t wish to step back their engagement out of a sense of civic responsibility, know that you’re not helping anyone by draining yourself in the name of staying informed. Making a martyr of yourself is futile. Adopt the oxygen mask rule: save yourself first. Then once you’re set, you’ll be that much better placed to help others.
What is the subconscious mind?
We spend most of our time on autopilot. Everything we do, from breathing to walking, to eating and having a conversation, occurs automatically as a way for our brain to preserve energy for what it considers more important tasks. This is the subconscious mind at work.
Freud developed the 3-level model of the mind, which is often represented as an iceberg: the conscious as the tip, the subconscious just beneath the surface, and the unconscious, buried below. The subconscious mind makes up 95% of the brain, while the conscious mind only 5% (Szegedy-Maszak, 2005). If we can learn how to access our subconscious, we have the power to unlock our full potential.
The Reticular Activating System
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a network of neurons that act as a filtering system between the conscious and subconscious mind. As our brains cannot absorb everything that is happening around us, the RAS controls the information that goes into our consciousness. It exists as a mechanism for survival. If we had to consciously think about every small action we take throughout the day, our energy would be depleted for when we need to be alert.
How can we use the RAS to change behaviours?
The RAS reinforces behaviours we have learned to do automatically. To change a behaviour, the neural pathways need to be reprogrammed to create a new response. For example, if we want to start waking up earlier but have the belief that we’re not a morning person, it will be difficult to suddenly start waking up earlier. We have to first become aware of the thought that may be holding us back—‘I’m not a morning person’—and shift that to a narrative of why we might enjoy the mornings, what we want to achieve by waking up earlier, and repeat the action until it becomes automatic.
This is also known as neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to rewire pathways to create a new behaviour response. Researchers have also concluded that to truly change a habit, we have to see the value of the new goal and the reward. So, how can we begin to bring the subconscious into awareness, shift our habits, and set ourselves onto the path of success?
The first way is through visualisation. Visualisation has long been used by top performers and athletes competing for the Olympics to prepare for the day of the events. It requires imagining the exact conditions you will be in, what it’s going to feel, smell, look like, and envisioning how you’re going to succeed.
As Frank Niles Ph.D., explains: ‘visualisation works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement. This creates a new neural pathway that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined.’ In other words, if we see it, we can believe it.
Take the time to pause
Meditation is a powerful tool to bring the subconscious into awareness. Studies have shown that practising mindfulness and meditation can help with depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and a variety of other mental and physical conditions. Meditation also aids in rewiring the brain’s circuits by increasing the amount of grey matter, which improves emotional regulation and impulse control. It gives us more control over our subconscious behaviours and leads to better decision-making that aligns with our goals.
Write down thoughts
Since the subconscious mind absorbs information that the conscious mind does not have the capacity to process, it contains a wealth of data, waiting to be accessed. Many high-achieving individuals swear by morning pages, which is the daily practice of freewriting in the morning before starting the day. As you write, it’s important not to edit or get caught up in spelling and grammar. This is the time to see what may come up without the conscious mind interfering.
Journaling is also a great way to define our goals. Unlike morning pages, this is best to do at night before bed to clear the mind for sleep. By writing down what we want to accomplish, our goals for the future, and how we want to achieve them, we bring them into awareness.
Get adequate rest
We often underestimate the value of a good night’s rest. Sleep, however, is essential to giving our minds and bodies the time to reset; it is when the brain recharges and processes information from the day. In fact, studies have shown that having adequate sleep, seven to eight hours a night, improves memory, regulates metabolism, reduces fatigue, and improves cognitive and behavioural function. The subconscious mind is more likely to repeat old patterns if it’s running on empty.
Tapping into the subconscious and rewiring neural pathways takes time. Change will not occur overnight. By becoming aware of our subconscious thoughts and behaviours, implementing techniques such as visualisations, meditation, journaling, and getting enough rest, we will soon begin to see the positive impact on our daily lives.
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Eugene, Andy R, and Jolanta Masiak. ‘The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep.’ MEDtube science vol. 3,1 (2015): 35-40.
Berkman, Elliot T. ‘The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change.’ Consulting psychology journal vol. 70,1 (2018): 28-44.
Clarey, Christopher, ‘Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.’ The New York Times. February 22, 2014.
Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, Gaser C. ‘The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter.’ Neuroimage. 2009 Apr 15;45(3):672-8.
Niles, Frank, Ph.D., ‘How to Use Visualization to Achieve Your Goals.’ Huffington Post. June 17, 2011.
Szegedy-Maszak, M., ‘Mysteries of the Mind: Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions.’ U.S. News & World Report, February 28, 2005.